Anyone who grew up on Disney movies probably makes the same mental association with the women’s suffrage movement in Britain: Mrs. Winifred Banks, wife and mother, employer of a certain Mary Poppins and a daffy dilettante chanting “Votes for women!” She may have been a ditz, but she wasn’t far from the persistent historical cliché–that the battle for the franchise in the United Kingdom was all about nice white ladies wearing gloves while throwing rocks at windows.
The gloves come off in Suffragette, director Sarah Gavron’s gritty political drama, which has generated political drama of its own. The film’s all-white casting has come under fire as inaccurate and exclusionary; the T-shirts worn during a Time Out London photo shoot by cast members Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan–bearing the legend I’d rather be a rebel than a slave–seemed tone-deaf to Americans, especially those more familiar with the Civil War than the utterances of Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep’s character, onscreen for about 90 seconds). Given the message, grit and misery portrayed in the film, criticizing it for such lapses seems churlish. Especially when there are so many other things to criticize.
This very earnest but costumey drama begins in 1912, a year or so after frustrated suffragettes escalated their campaign of arson, destruction and civil disobedience–a period that crescendoed with the death of Emily Davison, who threw herself in front of King George V’s horse during the Epsom Derby of 1913. Gavron portrays the suffrage crusade as a working-class movement, one whose members are bludgeoned with societal contempt and police blackjacks. Yet many of those making noble statements possess familiarly posh faces–Helena Bonham Carter, for instance, playing a chemist cum bombmaker whose zealotry gets away from her; or Streep, whose vocal performance as the fugitive Mrs. Pankhurst is another of those unearthly things the actor does routinely and well. (Pankhurst incites the destruction of British property, tells Maud Watts “Never give up the fight” and is spirited away from approaching authorities.) Brendan Gleeson, playing an Irish detective assigned to undermine and brutalize the agitators, is his usual solid self.
But it’s Mulligan’s character Maud Watts, a virtual repository of patriarchal oppression, whose accidental conversion to the cause constitutes the emotional arc of the movie. Watts, a drudge-to-be laundress all her life, is delivering a package on a crowded London street when she’s swept up in a pro-vote protest involving prams full of paving stones, shattered glass, screaming women and incriminating photographs. Caught in the sweep of police cameras, Maud is implicated as an enemy combatant in what constitutes an early war on terrorism, waged by a nascent U.K. surveillance state.
Maud comes to exemplify the most dangerous woman as the one with nothing left to lose. Overworked, underpaid, sexually harassed and considered the legal property of her feckless husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), she’s put out of her home for her militancy. And then things get worse. Yes, such things happened. Gavron’s touch, though, renders them melodramatic.
Suffragette is also off-putting visually, probably because Gavron’s modest budget ($14 million, as reported by Variety) compelled her cinematographer, Eduard Grau, to shoot much of the film up close and claustrophobically. Riot scenes become an expressionist collage of bodies and motion; there’s little center of gravity, or center of the universe, when the mayhem really gets under way. This might have eliminated the need for elaborate sets or the taking over of city streets, but it also precludes much sense of space, or of London circa 1912. That was the same year the Titanic went down, of course, but not male supremacy. Not until 1928–the year Mrs. Pankhurst died, as it happens–did women get the full vote in Britain.
This appears in the November 02, 2015 issue of TIME.